Mark Thomas – Canberra Times
February 3, 2023
Kirstin Ferguson herself notes wryly that an Amazon search lists 60,000 books on leadership, then commends the reader for having picked this one.
Ferguson’s thesis is encapsulated in her title. In line with what is now orthodox management theory, Ferguson emphasises empathy and emotional intelligence. For her, leadership does not entail giving orders and demanding obedience, ticking boxes or paying lip service to teamwork and others’ concerns.
Rather, her leaders draw on the collective leadership of those around them. They remain “humbled by the sheer complexity of the issues they need to resolve”. These paragons “understand their limitations and have the strength to be vulnerable”. Needless to say, they value feedback from their teams. Neither Hitler not Churchill would have qualified. Nor would Napoleon, Caesar, Ulysses Grant or Alexander Nevsky. Battle-scarred, world-weary know-alls here receive their comeuppance.
Ferguson assures the reader that these are considered judgements, again based on the blend of head and heart in her title. As her first, arresting illustration of her argument, Ferguson focuses on “a mere second within a single battle that lasted seven hours”. The anecdote in question surprisingly involves a kiss on a cheek.
Just because there is a gross surfeit of books on leadership does not mean there are no lessons left to learn. The enduring popularity of Harvard’s Getting to Yes attests to the enduring value of common sense, clear and coherent approaches to problems. Misguided traditionalists would reach much further back, seeking to unearth advice on management from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Neither of those authors, though, would have scored well on empathy.
Ferguson shrewdly starts by citing two modern leaders, a disc jockey and a television comedian, as role models for putative leaders. Both Ardern and Zelensky set the bar high, but Ferguson is quick to include an extensive and eclectic selection of other stories and personalities to illustrate her points.
She does not disparage judgement learned through the head, in the form of curiosity, wisdom, perspective and capability. Nonetheless, she treats more affectionately qualities associated with the heart, here defined as humility, self-awareness, courage and empathy.
Management guides run the risk of seeming trite, repetitive or self-evident. Ferguson’s clever introduction of divergent points of view and sources of counsel enables her to evade those traps.